The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes
Last Sunday, I was driven in a white stretch-limousine, a very long, long, limo, to the home of a wealthy individual whose estate is surrounded by Sycamore trees in a peninsula bounded by the waters of the Long Island Sound
I sat on the back seat, if that is what is called, since sitting there felt more like being in in a cottage. The chauffeur drove me to the home of this wealthy individual, whom, I learned from the agency, was called Samuel. I later learned the name was an alias, an Also-Known-As appellation he’d adopted to prevent anyone from knowing he was a billionaire.
The billionaire, I later learned, had lost the use of all his appendages. A quadriplegic. The man had lost the use of all his limbs after being thrown from a horse during an equestrian competition called the Hampton’s Classic. He had lost the use of upper body muscles. To help him breath, he relied on a catheter inserted through his left nostril, attached to a machine that pumped oxygen into his lungs. To get around the house, which had been built to suit his ailment, he rode in a machine shaped like a pod, which he controlled with his mouth via a cleverly designed contraption designed to respond to his commands by blowing into a tiny tube attached to the side of the machine, leading to his lips.
The chauffeur and I drove from my apartment in Manhattan, through Queens; got on the Long Island Expressway, took the HOV lane to an exit in the mid-thirties, then drove north until we reached an area where Oak and Sycamore trees lined either side of the narrow streets. The wealthy man’s driver seemed very comfortable at the wheel of the white stretch limo. He almost didn’t appear to be driving the car at all. In fact, it looked more like he was sitting at home in his lazy-boy watching a movie on a giant 3-D flat screen TV. I sat in the back, as if in a movie theatre during a screening of Driving Miss Daisy. It all didn’t seem very normal.
Normally, I am not driven to the home of the person I will be reading for; normally, I do all the driving; and, normally, I’m driving to places in the Bronx, or Queens, or Manhattan; or to some nondescript neighborhood in the middle of Long Island.
I’m a volunteer reader. I donate my time to read to seniors, to invalids in group homes, to disabled veterans and shut-ins. This was the first time I had ever been asked to read to a quadriplegic magnate.
Normally, I make initial contact with a member of the management of the volunteer group who acts as the go-between and feeds me the information I need to perform my duties adequately: she gets the titles of the books they want to have me read, and alerts me to any special needs that I should be aware of. In this case, the case of the billionaire, I had not been told of his affliction, nor was I given the titles of any of the books that this man might want to hear me read to him. I wasn’t surprised or worried, for there are individuals who keep neat little stacks of books that they want me to read to them when I arrive. The titles, subjects, and authors of the books I’m asked to read are not very unusual: historical romances, science fiction, detective stories, and very seldom, poetry. Mostly, though, it’s commercial literature. I must say that Stephen King must be swimming in royalties, because the majority of people I read for seem to have an inkling towards his works of fiction.
We arrived at the home of Mr. Samuel at about a quarter-to-four. It was late for lunch, and early for dinner, so I figured I was probably not going to be invited to stay for supper. No matter, I thought, I usually try not to share meals when I read to people, besides, I normally pack a snack of grapes, carrots, and a bottle of Polar Spring water, which I keep next to me when I read. It helps keep my vocal chords moist.
I will skip telling about the grandeur of the billionaire’s house. I won’t describe the gigantic Calder sculpture hanging above the main entrance, or the Mondrian paintings matching the floor tiles, or the majestic stained glass windows on the cathedral ceiling that let the light in and bathed the entire hall with greens, and yellows, and reds. I’m certainly going to skip telling you about the Rembrandt, the Picasso, the Renoir, the Nevelson, the giant Pollock; and, of course, I will leave out the built in pipe organ. Not that they didn’t make an impression on me.
A man ushered me towards the library. The library! How magnificent, I thought. I have a nice collection of books that furnish the walls of my apartment, which I call MY library. This library, in comparison, was a real library. I remember a scene in the film “Meet Joe Black,” where Anthony Hopkins meets the Angel of Death as a mysterious voice in his library; when I walked into this library, I stood in the near exact copy of the movie set, only, instead of hearing of the voice of Death, I heard the soft whisper of the oxygen machine feeding life into my client’s lungs.
Samuel, the invalid was sitting on a magnificent throne that appeared to have been built to fit his body like a pod. It was self propelled, controlled by a gizmo that Samuel had in his mouth. He blew once and the machine moved forward, he blew twice and it stopped, he blew three times, and it went backwards. I merely stood there not really knowing quite how to react to him. I think Samuel realized my hesitation when he saw me standing there looking like a lady pulling her dress up to her ankles trying not to get wet by the approaching puddle of water that was him.
Please sit anywhere. Choose any spot.
I chose a spot, and sat.
Samuel blew once and his pea-pod moved close to where I was sitting.
Surprisingly, we were alone. I had suspected that there would be an army of servants at his side, ready to do his bidding, instead, it was Samuel and I alone.
Hello Mr. Samuel, I’m James, James Watt.
Please to meet you Mr. Watt. May I call you James?
You can call me Watt, Mr. Samuel.
Good, please call me Sam.
Thank you, Sam.
We stared at each other for a moment. I felt uncomfortable. I averted my gaze, did a quick scan of the contents of the walls, and made a platitudinous remark about the books in the library. I don’t exactly remember what it was I said, but if it was as I always do, I probably made a reference to Anthony Powell’s novel, Books do Furnish a Room.
Watt, said Sam, addressing me politely, thank you very much for coming today. I am very grateful that you have taken time on a Sunday to read to me. It means the world to me.
Oh, please, there’s no need...
No, Watt, there is... I want you to know that I am grateful.
Thank you Sam, I said, then asked if he had a book in mind that I should read to him.
Yes, it’s on the table. He moved his eyeballs smoothly within their sockets, as if they were his fingers pointing in the direction of a large oak table at the center of the library floor. I stood up and walked to wards the table. When I reached the edge of the large table, I immediately recognized the name of the author on the cover. It was printed in large black letters: “Virginia Woolf.” I was surprised. Surprised by the fact that it was a tattered paperback with a red remainder mark on its bottom edge. I was also surprised by the title: “To The Lighthouse.”
To The Lighthouse?
To The Lighthouse.
The paperback was a recent printing with a foreword by Eudora Welty and blurbs on the back cover by Margaret Drabble, and Rick Moody ( author of The Ice Storm) lauding the author and her work: “without question one of the two or three finest novels of the twentieth century.” They didn’t need to include these, I thought to myself, who on earth would need to be told of the virtues of such work, who would need to be convinced to pay a few dollars for it. Anyone, I thought, should feel privileged to pay full price for an excellent copy of any of Ms. Woolf’s works.
I was still taken aback by the fact that I was surrounded by thousands of books in beautiful bindings. They were probably worth a fortune. Yet, I was handed a cheap paperback to read from. Samuel must have read the look on my face when he spoke:
I own the original manuscript.
I turned my head in his direction, fanned the pages of the paperback I held in my hands, and smiled.
You must have some interesting treasures in you library.
Why Virginia Woolf?
My mother read it to me when I was a child. The title you hold in your hands was her favorite.
To The Lighthouse?
To The Lighthouse, Yes.
You have read it, Watt?
Yes, I don’t read it often, but each time it’s a revelation.
I’m glad to hear that.
Oh? Why is that?
Well, Watt, because I wouldn’t want you to read something not palatable to you.
I imagine... ( cough) I imagine it would be ( cough) a chore for you to read something you don’t like (cough, cough)
Are you alright? Should I call...
No, I’m sorry, it comes and goes, I’m fine. Thank you, Watt.
Well, Sam, there are few authors I do not like. But yes, you are quite right, I have been known to doze off every once in a while when reading books by certain authors.
Care to name some names, Watt?
Well, it wouldn’t be fair to the authors, I should think.
(pause) (cough) You’re probably right. Sorry, Watt.
Should we get started, Sam?
The sound of whispers coming from the flowing oxygen through the catheder in Sam’s left nostril became louder, steady, with a quick rhythm: high-low, high-low, high-low, I felt uncomfortable. I became conscious of my own breathing. Hiss, hiss, hiss; every few minutes, a soft hissing, came from the machine supplying the oxygen to Sam’s lungs.
(cough) ( cough)
Before Sam had had an opportunity to answer, the lights in the library came on in unison: lamps, sconces, chandeliers, light accents on the old master paintings; track lighting inside the glass cabinets, containing the most rare of tomes in the library. At that same exact time a loud ding-dong, ding-dong, ding-dong, ding-dong, from a grandfather clock marked the time. The ding echoed along the vaulted ceiling and returned directly into my eardrums.
Before we start, Watt, I need to ask you a favor.
Sure? what can I do for you, Sam.
Next to the piano, Watt. Please flip the red switch to the top.
The moment my index finger flipped the soft red lever, the entire library became a concert hall. The pitch and volume of the music piped into the room had been carefully modulated so as to not disturb, but please the ears of anyone present. I immediately recognized the melody.
The Goldberg Variations!
Watt, who is the performer? Can you guess who, Watt?
This was easy for me. I knew the performance very, very well.
Glenn Gould, I said smugly.
Bravo! Bravo! Watt. Glenn got so carried away performing a Bach concerto he cut his thumb on the keys in his exuberant finale. (cough) Of course (cough)... I’m sorry.. (cough) of course those are not my words.. (cough) William Gaddis wrote that (cough) in Agape Agape.. (cough) did you know that, Watt?
Are you sure you don’t want to her me to call someone? Should I read?
No, not yet, Watt.
By the way, I did not know the quote was from Gaddis. Should we get started with Ms. Woolf?
Be kind and chat with me a moment, Watt.
I looked down at the paperback I held in my hands. I stared at the front cover; on it, was a photograph of a beach scene: four figures on the foreground, to the right, a woman wearing a black dress, black hat, holding a black umbrella to shield herself from the sun. In front of this woman is another woman, wearing a black dress, a black hat with a band, a white band. In front of her, and barely clearing the dune, is the head of a
hatless woman, her body is not visible. On the left hand side of the photograph, close to the edge and spine of the book, sits an older man wearing a dark suit, sitting on the dune with his back arched forward and his arms resting on his bent knees. One can tell that he is obviously exhausted. He has planted his walking stick in the sand next to him and placed his black wide-rimmed hat on it. At the edge of the sandy beach is a small dingy, various figures; about eight, one atop the dingy, and a couple in the water are frozen in movement. They’re small, barely visible. In the distance, across the grey and black patch of ocean, stands the lighthouse. The top of the structure ends beneath the two letters “O O” in Woolf.
Sam, are you sure you’re alright? Should I call the butler?
(Cough..) Butler? said Sam softly, and made two hacking sounds: his feeble attempt at laughing.
You must mean Robert.( cough) No. It’s not necessary.
I brought the paperback close to my face and rested it on my lips. I could smell the scent of cheap paper. Glenn Gould pounded the piano in the background. I closed my eyes for a moment and listened to the notes echoing in the darkness.
(Cough..) Glenn wanted to be the Steinway because he hated the idea of being between ( cough) Bach and the Steinway... (cough) Gaddis again, of course..
Let me start reading, Sam.
Fine. Go ahead. (cough)
The Window. “ Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow” said Mrs. Ramsay. “but You’ll have to be up....
Should I fetch Robert?
Should I continue?
To The Lighthouse is etherial, (cough) it reminds me of my mother. It’s also a damn boring book.. but it reminds me of my mother. (cough) I prefer Beckett.
Should I read Beckett instead, Sam?
No. No..(cough) My mother’s name was not Molloy!
My mother’s name was not Molloy!
My mother’s name was not Molloy!
Those were Sam’s last words. Glenn Gould played the Goldberg variations. I held Virginia Woolf’s paperback in my left hand, pressed to my chest, my finger marking the place where I had started to read: Chapter One, page 3. I opened the book and stared at the words on the page, and read them with my eyes:
“To her son these words conveyed and extraordinary joy...”
© Oswaldo Jimenez March 2013
More stories in Dreamscapes
There’s really no way to prepare for the death of a parent. When it happens, it happens when you least expect it. When it happens, you grieve, but you feel relieved. Guilty, but relieved. Eventually, guilt subsides and the chore of setting things right begins